COACHING TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE

COACHING TO IMPROVE PERFORMANCE

MANAGEMENT

Coaching is a structured training method that allows firefighters to take an active part in the planning process—a process that helps them correct job-related problems, learn more about the culture of the department, develop stronger and continuing relationships with coworkers, and prepare for technological change. It uses a face-to-face process to plan, implement, and evaluate ways of improving firefighter and departmental performance. It guides and supports firefighters while allowing them to voice opinions. It is frequently used to correct skill or knowledge deficiencies.

Coaching is not a cheerleading activity used to build morale or motivate firefighters to improve performance. Furthermore, it is not a onetime, informal, unstructured training method.

Basically, coaching is a significant investment in all firefighters that increases operating efficiency by identifying and correcting firefighter performance problems early. Through this, firefighters have a better understanding of departmental needs, management views, other firefighters, and various job positions. These benefits also build mutual respect and foster better labor-management relationships, which are important for departmental survival.

Coaching encourages firefighters to implement a performance improvement plan for themselves, which strengthens the department’s performance appraisal process. In addition, it provides officers with a way to monitor firefighters’ progress and the opportunity to access their potential for promotion.

Coaching also can prepare firefighters for the future by developing their self-confidence through participative management and team building. Such benefits promote a nonthreatening, trust-building climate that recognizes individual differences and inputs.

Coaching requires sensitivity to firefighter and departmental needs. However, when this sensitivity is distorted and problems arise from personality conflicts, fear of failure, lack of time, low self-esteem, lack of self-discipline, lack of personal commitment, and poor work habits, firefighter counseling is a more appropriate intervention than coaching. The benefits of coaching also are decreased by poor management practices, such as the belief that “the department cannot develop a firefighter—the firefighter must develop himself.” An officer who is too eager to correct a problem or who is unwilling to conduct regular performance appraisals also reduces the benefits of coaching.

A firefighter also can reduce the effects of coaching by not recognizing the problem, not feeling ownership for the problem, or not wanting to change. It often happens that a firefighter recognizes the need to change, but the officer does not take corrective actions or offer follow-ups, training, or support services.

EFFECTIVE COACHES

The firefighter has the primary responsibility of correcting a perfbrmance problem. However, management’s actions must support the firefighter during the learning or relearning period. Each layer of management is responsible for providing different types of support. For example, executive officers are responsible for establishing a foundation for developing firefighters (human resources) as well as the level and quality of support. The philosophical foundation is established around a performance appraisal system committed to building firefighter competence and performance. Management can show its interest in developing personnel by its actions and examples, which build bridges between firefighters and management to ensure compliance with the department’s strategic and business plans.

Figure 1

Job Performance Guide: Questions a Coach Must Answer

BEFORE:

  1. Purpose: Why is improvement necessary?
  2. Operational plan: Which SOP/task is being addressed?
  3. Motivation: Does the firefighter want to change his performance?
  4. Readiness: Is the firefighter ready to learn?
  5. SOP/task difficulty: Is the SOP/task accomplishable yet difficult enough to stimulate and maintain interest?

DURING:

  1. Activities: Can the firefighter be involved in the learning process?
  2. Setting: Are the job performance guides and other resources available to the coach?
  3. Support: Have emotional and intellectual support activities been designed into the coaching activity?

FOLLOW-UP:

  1. Firefighter: Is the firefighter satisfied with his accomplishments?
  2. Performance: Did the firefighter’s performance improve?
  3. Coach: Is the coach satisfied with the firefighter’s performance?
  4. Department: Is the department satisfied with the results achieved?

Figure 2

Job Performance Guide: The Coaching Process

  1. Identify the problem: Firefighter reacts to fireground situations without having sufficient time to evaluate conditions and think about how to perform necessary tactics.
  2. Problem recognition: Firefighter agrees that he enters hazardous environments before identifying the conditions and thinking about the best tactics to use.
  3. Individual differences: What individual differences (such as physical, reading, or seeing problems; language deficiencies; or cultural differences) might be contributing to his performance deficiency?
  4. Performance goals: Jointly determine objectives to be accomplished to rectify the identified problem.
  5. Capabilities: Did the firefighter learn the skill previously and forget it due to lack of practice? Is the skill or knowledge new to the firefighter?
  6. Establish/refine the SOP/task: Determine steps of procedure that the firefighter should use as a guide to execute the desired performance.
  7. Demonstrate the SOP/task: The coach demonstrates each step of procedure in the SOP/task and explains its importance to the firefighter.
  8. Practice the SOP/task: Firefighter is given a ”safe” environment to practice SOP/task. Praise the firefighter for correct performance; correct and record results until acceptable performance is attained.
  9. Evaluate performance: Use the SOP/task identified in #6 as your evaluation tool.

Performance appraisals also assist district officers in accomplishing their responsibilities. The chief’s philosophy of developing the department’s human resources should stimulate a similar interest in district officers. District officers need to prepare their company officers as effective coaches. Training company officers to identify and correct job-centered problems can stimulate firefighter development and improve company performance and teamwork.

Before and during the coaching process, a coach must answer several questions (see Figure 1), keeping in mind that change is uncomfortable for everyone. The firefighter must believe that the proposed change is advantageous for all.

To build a strong, trusting relationship. the coach must recognize the unique needs and differences of each firefighter. A firefighter’s physical needs—food, clothing, and shelter— must be met. Security, another need, involves being comfortable with basic skills before progressing on to more advanced skills and knowledge. Social needs are the next important quality: Is the firefighter a member of the team? Self-esteem is another need— the need to be respected by others.

The last need is self-satisfaction —the firefighter’s ability to use new knowledge and skills to solve problems, However, this need cannot be designed into the coaching activity.

Effective coaches must have a good understanding of the knowledge and skills needed to perform the task in question. The coach must make good decisions, be sensitive to departmental and firefighter needs, motivate firefighters, build firefighter trust, confess mistakes, recognize personnel’s worth and value to the department, and be honest and dedicated. Quality coaching is based on the relationship between firefighter and coach.

THE COACHING PROCESS

The process begins with the coach identifying a firefighter-centered performance problem or discrepancy. A discrepancy is defined as the difference between what is and what should be. Then the coach informs the firefighter that such a problem exists. The firefighter must recognize that a problem exists and that it is his. If the firefighter cannot accept the problem, the coach gives him appropriate assignments to help him recognize the problem, realize that he can control the problem, and realize that his superiors are not satisfied. (See Figure 2.)

Following the firefighter’s recognition of the problem, the coach then determines if something is interfering with the firefighter’s performance, such as family problems, job dissatisfaction, or individual needs and differences. After collecting this data, the coach and firefighter begin setting goals. Typically they agree on one or two goals with time limits.

Then the coach determines the firefighter’s capabilities—that is, if the firefighter ever learned the skill. If so, did the firefighter forget the skill due to lack of practice, a poorly designed work station, or a poor or distracting work environment? The coach must take into account the firefighter’s needs, differences, and capabilities to get the best picture of his potential.

The establishment or refinement of an SOP/task (task analysis) is essential for safe, efficient firefighter performance. It is also critical to minimize coach liability should the firefighter or a citizen be injured as a result of the coaching activity. Each step should have a definite beginning and an identifiable ending. As each step is identified, appropriate decisions and cues also are identified to help the firefighter execute the step efficiently and effectively. To protect the firefighter, appropriate hazards and safety precautions associated with each step are identified, too. The data collected during this step also can be used to develop job performance guides for the firefighter to use during the learning process and as a tool to recall important information on the fireground.

The next step is to create an effective demonstration of the SOP/task performance, combining words and actions into a pattern that stimulates the desired firefighter response. As soon as the firefighter can explain the steps of procedure, allow the firefighter sufficient time to develop his competency. During practice, the coach should evaluate firefighter performance and provide feedback as necessary.

Praise and reprimands should be a normal part of the work environment, but they are critical to the coaching process. The coach should praise firefighters when they improve their performance and reprimand inappropriate performance.

THE FUTURE OF COACHING

In the future, departments may utilize desktop, laptop, or even apparatus-based computers as coaches to improve company and organizational performance. Firefighters can use decision-modeling software in-house to review tactical operating procedures; officers can use it at an incident for careful yet deliberate decision making; administration can use it as a guide during employment interviews; hazardous-materials intervention teams can use it to make informed decisions; and paramedics can review their various protocols.

Decision-modeling software also provides the training officer flexibility in emulating the human thought processes, using underlying assumptions, or testing hypotheses that are used to make appropriate choices. A primary advantage of decision-modeling software is its ability to transmit expertise to others—the expertise gained by observing how people make decisions or perform SOPs/tasks. A drawback is that good decision models take time to design, develop, validate, and test under real-life conditions.

A major challenge facing chief fire officers is how to maximize organizational performance. District officers need to train company officers to become coaches, because they are in the best position to effect change and motivate firefighters.

Coaching is a structured training method that supports performance appraisals. It is also a complex, continuous process used to improve firefighter, company, and departmental performance and the quality of their services. Today coaching relies heavily on human interfaces; tomorrow the computer may coach all firefighters in the execution of their jobs.

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